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Google Pressured on Racial Equity Audit After AI Ethics Collapse

April 27, 2021, 10:00 AM

An influential racial justice group called on Google to allow independent auditors to investigate the company’s business for potential discriminatory conduct.

Color of Change is urging the internet search giant to undergo a racial equity audit of its operations following the ouster of two women who led the company’s Ethical AI team.

In a letter to Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai and other top executives, Color of Change said a public and independent audit would help the company better identify strengths and weaknesses related to “racial equity, civil rights, and anti-discrimination.”

“Black Googlers face a hostile work environment where employees share racist sentiments and Black Googlers bear the burden of educating their colleagues or, worse, retaliation for flagging discriminatory products, features, or policies,” the organization wrote in the letter.

Racial equity audits are conducted by third-party groups, which analyze companies’ business models -- from policies to products and services -- to determine whether they cause, reinforce or perpetuate discrimination.

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Color of Change, which has successfully pushed other tech companies to allow these audits, also criticized YouTube for fostering social media influencers who spread white nationalist and other extremist content.

The initiative adds pressure on Alphabet Inc.’s Google over how it handles harassment allegations and racial justice issues including critical AI bias research and the proliferation of hateful videos on YouTube. Last year, Color of Change helped organize an advertiser boycott of Facebook Inc. over discriminatory content.

READ MORE: YouTube Managers Ignored Warnings, Let Toxic Videos Run Rampant

Alexandra Veitch, a public policy executive at YouTube, is set to testify on Tuesday before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee alongside executives from Facebook and Twitter Inc. about how social media technology shapes public discourse.

“Google likes to make us feel like they are on the side of equality and justice, but they have failed to be transparent about the issues,” Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said in an interview. “They have failed to take accountability and we need them to take this step.”

The group has repeatedly met with the company to discuss racial justice issues. It even requested a meeting with Pichai, which was denied, Robinson added.

“Diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well as fundamental civil and human rights, are a key focus of our workplace, our supplier commitments and the way we run our company,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement. “There is always more to be done, and as we continue to make steady progress on our racial equity commitments, we welcome feedback from Color of Change.”

Last June, soon after the police murder of George Floyd, Google committed to increase underrepresented groups at senior levels by 30% by 2025. The company later added another goal to more than double the number of Black+ Googlers at all other levels by 2025. The company has said it also hired more people to support underrepresented employees and advise them on career progression, while rolling out more checks to make sure its performance-evaluation process is fair and equitable.

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In December 2020, Google’s Ethical AI team started to collapse after the contentious exit of prominent Black researcher Timnit Gebru over a paper the company saw as critical of its artificial intelligence technology. Gebru and her co-lead Margaret Mitchell were ousted and have blamed a sexist and racist culture as the reason they were excluded from conversations about AI ethics.

READ MORE: Google’s Ethical AI Turmoil Began Long Before Public Unraveling

Gebru is well-known for her work on a landmark study in 2018 that showed some facial recognition products fared poorly in categorizing people with darker skin.

In recent years, Color of Change and other civil rights groups have successfully pushed for independent racial equity audits at Facebook and Airbnb Inc. Following the audit at Facebook, the company hired Roy Austin, a former Justice Department official under U.S. President Barack Obama, to oversee its civil rights strategy. Facebook didn’t follow through on some other recommendations, according to the auditors.

--With assistance from Nico Grant.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Naomi Nix in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Jillian Ward at

Alistair Barr

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